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Corruption Flourishes, even as Afghanistan Lingers on the Precipice of a Major Health Crisis: SIGAR

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New report by SIGAR says that Afghanistan is on the brink of a major public health crisis

Corruption remains widespread across multiple sectors and remains an area of concern

Major General removed from role due to findings of corruption and theft, remains employed

Shoddy construction on critical infrastructure may pose safety hazards; will interrupt electricity supply, finds SIGAR

A new report by SIGAR has found that Coronavirus could decimate Afghanistan. The report stated that Afghanistan’s fragile healthcare system, poverty, and porous borders were catalysts for a health crisis, with widespread malnutrition and the insufficient health literacy of many Afghans another key contributing factor.

Cultural issues are another factor which can contribute to a health crisis. Shaking hands, gathering in large groups, and attending mosques are important to most Afghans, but could cause a spike in health issues in coming months. “[These things] make it likely the country will confront a health disaster in coming months,” says the report.

To stem the spread of the virus, the government issued a lockdown order on March 14. Stricter conditions were imposed on Kabul residents on April 8, with the government ordering people to remain in lockdown after previous advice regarding hygiene and social distancing went unheeded by many Afghans.

Coronavirus Causes Decline in Earnings, but the Cost of Groceries Increases Substantially

Coronavirus has negatively impacted the earning potential of many Afghans. The report found that the purchasing power of laborers and pastural workers has fallen significantly. The drop in purchasing power is particularly concerning in Kabul. According to the SIGAR report, the spending capabilities of casual labourers has fallen by an alarming 31%.

Despite many people experiencing a drop in their earnings, vendors have increased their prices substantially in order to capitalise on the Coronavirus outbreak. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) reported a spike in the price of essential items such as wheat flour and oil. As at April 15, the price of wheat flour has increased 15-18%, and the price of cooking oil has increased by 17%. This is concerning as it may further contribute to Afghanistan’s widespread malnutrition problems and hamper public health initiatives, as many Afghans grapple with the increasing cost of groceries while experiencing a sharp decrease in earnings.

Hospitals Unprepared for Crisis

Hospitals are largely unprepared for a health crisis, finds the report, with an inspection of 269 hospitals in Afghanistan revealing that only one hospital featured an onsite pharmacy. There were also reports that at least one hospital experienced a backlog of Coronavirus tests, and consequently was forced to temporarily stop testing people. As of 1 May 2020, there are 2,469 cases of Coronavirus in Afghanistan, with most cases being reported in Kabul and Herat.

Herat in particular is at high risk of experiencing a spike in Coronavirus cases due to its proximity to Iran and the high number of undocumented Afghan migrants returning from Iran to Afghanistan via Herat.

“I want to frankly say I am digging graves in Herat,” said the Governor of Herat, Abdul Quayom Rahimi. In an interview with Time Magazine, Governor Rahimi said that he considers Herat to be the Wuhan of Afghanistan and expressed concerns about Herat’s capabilities to manage a large outbreak. “I’m quite sure we will be overwhelmed in coming weeks,” he said. “Our system is not very strong.”

Hospital workers themselves may not be safe, with the SIGAR report noting that many hospitals rely on incinerators to destroy medical waste. However, the incinerators are mostly in very poor repair. Due to their locations and their poor maintenance, the incinerators may pose health risks to hospital staff.

University Woes, a Disgraced Major General, and Shonky Construction on Critical Infrastructure

Despite the developing crisis, corruption flourished over the January 2020 to March 2020 SIGAR reporting quarter. In some instances, timely corrective measures were engaged to amend the issues.

The American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) was found to be charging the State 26% higher fees for scholarship students than it charged for full fee-paying students. The AUAF corrected the issue in a timely manner following State intercession, a SIGAR audit found. The AUAF also dismissed the Director of the Women’s Centre at AUAF following State advice after the director was found to have a history of professional mismanagement. Two members of the director’s family were also dismissed, as per State suggestions, a move which ought to be applauded as the potential beginning of an improvement in the AUAF’s general management capabilities.

Even though the AUAF worked cooperatively with the State and SIGAR on some matters, the SIGAR report was critical of the AUAF, quoting an earlier statement from the Asia Foundation. “[There is] an overall culture of the organisation [that] exhibits a reluctance to change behaviour, even when significant problems have been repeatedly identified.”

The AUAF has had longstanding difficulties surrounding staffing, management, and financial reporting, says the report. However, despite oversight by USAID, State, and the DOD, the University has not yet resolved its problems with its administrative processes, financial control, or overarching management.

As the AUAF continues to struggle, MoD is adapting new ways of processing payroll calculations for MoD staff, says SIGAR.

The system, called the Afghan Personnel and Pay System aims to provide more transparency and simplicity to the payroll process by generating payroll calculations for staff. The new system will also spur on a removal of old accounts and will provide more accurate records of payment information.

Increased tracking of payment information by the MoD is a step in the right direction. However, corruption still occurs frequently in other offices, as evidenced by SIGAR investigations.

Parwan Police Commander Major General Safiullah Safi was removed from his position at the Military Police Guard Command (MPGC). President Ashraf Ghani signed an order on January 31 to remove Safi from his role at the MPGC. Safi was reassigned to Active Reserve Officer of the Chief of Army Staff Personnel.

Following a SIGAR investigation, Safiullah Safi was found to have knowingly hired underqualified military staff members who hailed from his village. Safi was also implemented in the theft of fuel, food, and equipment, says the report. Several logistics officers were also implicated, and SIGAR recommended that they be dismissed.

While corruption was a key area of interest in SIGAR investigations, infrastructure was also an issue. SIGAR said that the poor construction of the Ghazni and Sayedabad substations was a contributing factor to electricity outages.

USAID’s Power Transmission and Expansion and Connectivity Project reported disruptions to their supply of electricity. The infrastructure was deemed to be a public safety hazard due to its poor structural construction, according to SIGAR.

KEC International Limited, the company which undertook the project, did not repair eight construction faults or amend the 11 punch list items identified by SIGAR inspectors in 2019, says the SIGAR report.

According to the damning SIGAR report, in December of 2018, KEC were alerted to eight construction deficiencies, and were instructed to correct the issues before the cessation of the warranty in March 2019. SIGAR inspectors conducted a second inspection in July 2019 and observed that no constructional corrections had been made by KEC.

USAID reported to SIGAR that DABS hasn’t fully paid KEC for the project yet because the $1,002,525,71 final invoice is still under review.

The USAID Mission Director received recommendations from SIGAR concerning how to address the situation. The recommendations include directing KEC to correct the construction defaults, ensuring that KEC resolves the 11 punch list item deficiencies at both the Ghazni and Sayedabad Substations, and that the payment of the final invoice ought to be withheld until KEC corrects the eight constructional defects and amends the 11 punch list items identified by the SIGAR inspectors.

SIGAR also recommended that if KEC does not correct the constructional hazards, the withheld money should be returned to the US treasury, or otherwise used to employ another contractor to complete the work.

The most recent SIGAR report projects a worrying forecast for Afghanistan in terms of the economy, the cost of food, and public health. As Afghanistan braces itself for the full social and economic impact of the Coronavirus, the locus is on the individuals to practise good hygiene and limit the spread of Coronavirus as much as they are able to do so, and to adapt to the changing world as best as they are able to do so. Afghanistan may be in hard times, but nothing can diminish the Afghan traits of resilience and duty to the community – traits that we may have to rely on more than ever before in these trying times.

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